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"Hello, My Name Is Doris" Director Michael Showalter on Working with Sally Field

The KCET Cinema Series continued on March 1 at the ArcLight Cinemas Sherman Oaks with "Hello, My Name Is Doris." Made in three weeks with only a million-dollar budget, the film took home the "Audience Award" and lots of praise when it debuted at South by Southwest in 2015.

The film stars award-winning actor Sally Field who portrays Doris, a quirky sixty something New Yorker who is going through some big life changes. As she deals with the death of her mother and her lonely existence, she falls hard for a young co-worker, handsome art director, who befriends her and introduces her to his Brooklyn hipster pals. The character of Doris began life in a short film by Laura Terruso at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. Michael Showalter ("Wet Hot American Summer"), who taught screenwriting at NYU, came on board to co-write a feature-length script and direct the film.

Showalter joined KCET Cinema Series host and Deadline columnist Pete Hammond for a Q & A session following the screening. An edited version of the interview appears here.

The KCET Cinema Series is sponsored by E. Hofert Dailey Trust and screens critically-lauded films prior to their theatrical release. The spring season of the series began on February 23 and will continue through April 12.

To attend the screenings and learn more about the KCET Cinema Series, call 747-201-5800 or visit kcet.org/cinemaseries.

On getting Sally Field to star in the film and shooting a movie set in New York on location in Los Angeles.

Except for the New York exteriors, the ferry obviously. We spent two very busy days in New York City. The vast majority of the movie we shot here in Los Angeles.

A big part of it was the budget was so low. I'll just quickly go back to the first part, I, in a million years, would not have ever thought that Sally Field would do the movie. I would never have written it for her only because I would not have assumed she would do it. We wrote the movie because we fell in love with this character that we created, that we were creating, Doris, and hoped that someone of Sally's caliber would ever think to do it. And so I, like a message in a bottle, we'll send the script to her agent and then, a total miracle she said that she would do the movie.

We shot the movie in L.A. for a myriad of reasons. A lot of it had to do with most of the cast, and myself, all live here. With a movie that small, you would spend so much money traveling us to New York and putting us up for a month or two, it was cost effective to just stay here and try to make L.A. look like New York, which, I think we did a pretty good job of it.

Even the rooftop knitting scene, that's L.A. A lot of the scenes where they're walking and talking is Los Angeles. Downtown Los Angeles, if you're smart about it, I lived in Brooklyn for many years, so I kind of know, I have a really good sense of what parts of Los Angeles can look like Brooklyn. If you're looking away from Manhattan on a rooftop, that can kind of look like downtown Los Angeles. Then we did some really good exteriors in New York.

On the development of "Hello, My Name Is Doris."

I was teaching screenwriting at NYU graduate film school, for six years I taught in the film school. Laura Terusso, who was not my student but was a student at the grad school, made this short film called "Doris and the Intern," which is a six minute-long short about a woman, a little bit like this Doris, kind of an eccentric type woman, gets a crush, big crush, on a 19-year-old intern. It was very funny and the character, Doris, had this kind of mischievousness to her and an archetypal quality that I felt like, I think I know this person. I'm a fan of the "Grey Gardens" movies and Iris Apfel and even being there a little bit. If you live in New York, or any other city really, you see these Dorises. You see them on the subway; you see them on the bus. I would see them at a flea market on the weekends, picking through clothing, and it struck me, this would be interesting to tell a whole story about a person like this, who we all know in our life, but who maybe we don't know as well as we think we know that person.

Laura and I started working on taking that six-minute short and imagining a feature story around it.

We wrote it together. We took the seed of that first short film and some of the comic sensibility, again, a lot of it was Doris as this comic protagonist is sort of like seemingly wallflower-y, fragile person who is actually really brave and kind of a mischievous person. You see it in the movie, right in the first scene when she steals the pencil out of his bag. That says everything about her. She's really not playing by the rules at all. She seems very innocuous, but she's actually like a lion. That's Sally. Sally Field is one of the only people that can combine that fragility with this unbelievable fierceness, but is so convincing and compelling. I can't imagine the movie, now that it's done. It could have only been Sally.

 

On melding comedy and drama in the film.

The one time I did meet with [Sally Field] before she decided to do the movie was that question: How are you going to do this? How are you going to meld these two things together, this tragic quality, and this incredibly sad personal story with the screwball comedy? There's some big screwball comedy in it.

I was like, I don't know, it's the same to me. I shouldn't say I don't know. It's the same to me.

I grew up on the East Coast going to see lots of plays, lots of theater. It's just the same thing to me. The comic stuff and the sad stuff lives so hand-in-hand. We're going to do the comedy really big. We're going to do the drama as big as we can. We're just going to have faith and it's all going to make sense when it's done.

On what drew Michael Showalter to the character Doris.

What drew me to the character was, it was a comic protagonist I hadn't seen before. It's not just another guy behaving badly and so that intrigued me

On Sally Field's input and the costumes.

That was what inspired her was Brigitte Bardot. I can't remember what that thing is called, there's a word, postiche, did someone say postiche?

I had in my mind sort of a "Grey Gardens," Iris Apfel fashionista eccentric character who actually didn't know what she was doing, other than just collecting clothes, but then Sally and the costume designer took it to a whole other level and really invented the look for her.

On Max Greenfield as John, Doris' crush.

He's obviously a great-looking guy and a really good actor, but has a kind of sweetness to him that I don't think you can, just exudes this sweetness that I think is key to the John character. This guy is kind of hunky, popular guy, but is really, genuinely a nice person who is looking to make a connection. He's new in town and he's just looking to make a connection and he and Doris, I think, have a genuine connection.

 

KCET Cinema Series Michael Showalter
KCET Cinema Series Michael Showalter, by Liz Ohanesian

On whether or not Doris is a hoarder.

I don't think [Doris is a hoarder]. I know Sally doesn't think she's a hoarder. What Sally thinks is that the mother might have been a hoarder.

The mother was, in Sally's mind, a hoarder. There's a fine-line, the clutterer or the collector, there is a moment in which becomes the hoarder, but we never wanted there to be any health issue, like there's decomposing food or anything like that. It's more must that she gets, maybe, unhealthy attachments to her objects. I certainly have that. I really relate to that aspect of her character. I can't throw anything away.

That thing about the shampoo bottles, "Well, someone might need those one day." I've kept every single tiny little Chapstick I ever got, anything, because you never know. It really means something. I can't throw away the bags you put a sandwich in or something like that. I feel very upset every time I have to throw away a sandwich bag or something like that. I do it, but it jolts me a little bit.

Are you nodding, you agree?

(Response from the audience)

What's interesting to me, about the sandwich bags, I have a hard time throwing away the sandwich bags, but I can throw away cellophane no problem.

I also like picking stuff up off the sidewalk too. A lot of the artwork that I have, that I've collected over the years is a cool poster that I found on the street or, you know. I think, Doris, a lot of people identify with that aspect of Doris.

On editing Doris and the "Sally Pass."

It was a very smooth edit. The first cut was a little long. I had a great editor, Rob Nassau, he had a very clear vision for the movie. We got the cut down.

In an earlier incarnation of the movie, the mother is alive for the first ten minutes of the movie and we get to see that relationship a little bit and the inciting incident is her passing away.

The big event in the editing was realizing that we needed to start the movie at the funeral and just jump right in. I'm not the kind of director that sits in the editing room a lot. I like to have the editor do their thing and I look at what they're doing and, if I like it, I say keep doing what you're doing.

Sally Field came in at one point and did, this is the Sally Pass, I call. We sort of got it really far and then she finally said, okay, I'm ready to see the movie. She came in and she had some really big notes about things we were missing in her performance that she wanted us to get. Then we went and did one more big pass through the movie based on Sally's input. This is the final product.

On Doris' fantasy life.

She's got a rich fantasy life. She reads romance novels. In a lot of ways, she's stuck where she was when some of the tragedies in her life occurred. She's still there and so she's got a big crush on a good-looking guy. For me, a lot of this was about falling in love for the first time and getting your heartbroken, kind of like a John Hughes movie, a teenage coming-of-age story.

I like, too, that it's Sally Field. We have a context for her as a teenager and we have a context for her in that way, so there is some weird way in which it's like your whole life watching in front of your eyes, to watch her go through all those parts of herself where she's dancing alone in the room wearing a poodle skirt and saddle shoes. For me, a lot of that was also about her and about what we know about her.

On the movie's hip, fictional band, Baby Goya and the Nuclear Winters.

That is a real band called Bleachers. The lead singer is this guy Jack Antonoff [also of fun.], who is a big pop star, a big, huge successful pop star. But, we did not write it for him. We invented this character, Baby Goya, and then Jack, we thought, oh my God, what if we could get Jack to play Baby Goya. He wrote those songs. We gave him the song titles and he wrote the songs in the character of Baby Goya. He, himself, is in a band called Bleachers. He was great. He was fantastic. He's a real musician, a real rock guy.

On his directorial style.

I used to be an actor and was never particularly good at it, so I feel like I really, really admire what it means to be a good actor. That being said, people will say, what was it like directing Sally Field? On the first day of shooting, what do you say when you meet Sally Field? It's so intimidating to feel like I would offer her anything, but I also lived with script and that story for a couple years before we started shooting. I had a really specific vision for it, for the world I wanted to create and how I wanted it to feel, the way I wanted this tiny, little world that we all hopefully get transported into, it has to feel a certain way and everyone kind of needs to be on the same page. Casting is 99% of it. Just cast good people that fit your tone and then you're most of the way there, but then guide the actors. Guide them to where you need to go. The editing is something different, but, on set, I have a pretty clear idea of how I want it to feel.

I like movies where friends are family, where your friends are your family. There are some directors that I think do that really well. I kind of gravitated towards them. One who I think about is Richard Curtis, who does all those Hugh Grant romantic comedies. He really always creates this, he did "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Bridget Jones" and "Notting Hill." His characters always have this really wonderful, weird group of friends that are sort of super dysfunctional, but they're family. I kind of wanted that too.

 

On getting "Hello, My Name Is Doris" made.

We had a tiny commitment for financing from this company, Red Crown, and it was in the vein of the sort of, we're making in the micro-budget movie business, which is this kind of new thing. We're going to give you a tiny little micro-budget, way less than a million, to make the movie because we think it's a good script. If you can get an actress of a higher caliber, not even of a Sally Field caliber, just anybody, then we'll give you a little more.

Honestly, just to have a commitment to finance a movie alone, I was like, great. So, that actually was first. The financing was first. It wasn't a lot of financing, but it was first. Max was second because he and I know each other. He agreed to do the movie. Then there was a little window where I had finished a project and Max was on his hiatus from doing "New Girl" and we were like, we've got to get this movie made in this little time window. I had this feeling like if we don't have a real actress to play Doris, we're not going to make the movie. I don't want to make the movie.

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